This summer marked our third family car trip to Canada. On occasion, we have joked darkly and said that our habit of traveling there is practice for when the U.S. reinstates the draft, and we have to hightail it north to keep Eli and perhaps the girls from compulsory service. Interestingly, during our stay in Toronto I read a biography of Jane Jacobs and learned that she and her husband moved to that same city in 1968 to keep their two sons from the draft, and she easily made it her home for the rest of her long life.
More immediately, though, we love it: a chance to go and be somewhere different, cool, and not America without the hassles of an airport and high price of (five!) airline tickets.
Plus, before we cross the border, we get to drive through some nice country in Maine, Vermont, or upstate New York and visit friends and stop at some out-of-the way U.S. attractions. This was so on our recent trip through Albany, Cooperstown, and Niagara Falls, on our way to Toronto.
What follows, in this post and the next, is less a summary than an accounting of high, and a few low, lights of our August vacation.
Leg one: Albany + Oneonta + Cooperstown
After a long lunch visit with my college friends Susan D’Entremont and John Jones and their children in Albany, we drove to and checked into our hotel in Oneonta and headed into town to eat at Autumn Cafe, which Eli found on yelp. The food was so-so, the ambience back-porchy, and our conversation irritable. So goes the first night of any vacation, a transitional moment. “We’re getting used to being on vacation as a family,” I wrote in my notes.
The next day we went to Cooperstown, our real reason for stopping in this neighborhood, and we satisfied our curiosity about the Baseball Hall of Fame. Notable parts: baseball art room (Lydia and Jimmy); Latin American players exhibit (Lydia); in Latin American players exhibit, “on the lists of players from that region, fewer came from Cuba in the 1960s than in the 1950s” (Eli); Hank Aaron exhibit, which emphasized his patience (Jane); and sandlot clubhouse for kids (Grace).
In our search for lunch, we examined the menu of one over-priced picnic food joint and then another. A menu item called All Star Burger seemed to be the local staple. For a while we stood on the sidewalk grumpily. The kids saw a sign for Foo Kin Chinese Food Restaurant and laughed. (This became the staple joke of our vacation — every time we were in a new neighborhood, one of the kids would invariably say, “I want some Foo Kin Chinese food.”) It seemed for a few minutes that lunch would end up being french fries and Coke. But I led us down the street and then down an alley to a restaurant name I recalled from a guidebook: Alex and Ika. Out of the way, it had out-of-this-world real food, including in-season local vegetables.
That afternoon, we drove north past beautiful Otsego Lake and through farm country to Howe Caverns. Because Grace was absolutely terrified to take an elevator 14 stories down into the earth, we “persuaded” her with the promise of a gift shop purchase after the tour. It’s interesting how the well-timed bribe doesn’t eliminate fear so much as present a trade-off to the child: she or he becomes willing to tolerate the fear for the “gift.” And, in the process, fear is sometimes cut down to size.
Confession: I, too, was secretly reluctant, er, scared to go to the bottom of Howe caves. What motivated me to follow through? Curiosity, and this: I want to be the kind of parent who would do these slightly scary things and do what I want the kids to do: abide with fear.
When the elevators got us down there, I was almost overwhelmed at first. Whether imaginary or real, my sense was that the Earth was bearing down on us. Pressure could crush us. Psychologically, it was unnerving. I did not fear, as you might think, that the caverns would crumble. Grace told me later that her terror was connected to the elevator: What if it broke down and we couldn’t get back up and out?
On the hour-long drive back to our hotel, with Crooked Still on, Eli pointed out that listening to bluegrass while driving on a beautiful country highway is a wonderful experience in itself. Indeed. Especially when fear, for a while, is behind you.
Leg two: Niagara Falls
We had a long, overcast ride from Oneonta to Niagara Falls. Lunch was at Viva Cantina in Ithaca, which is like Berkeley but less grubby. On the drive out of town we passed the famous Moosewood Restaurant. Damn! Missed opportunity.
The Finger Lakes region is beautiful, but the drive through it was long. In the car, Lydia entertained us with a long riff about being a llama farmer someday. Grace saw a sign that said “Cook Farm,” and she turned to her older sister and said, “Lydia, there’s a place for you: kook park.”
Dark and pouring rain by dinner time, we finally arrived in Niagara Falls, ON. We dashed through the downpour to the nearest place, a T.G.I. Friday, and had a terrible dinner, which reminded us of having once before been to a T.G.I.F. and making a family promise to never eat at one again. Eli suggested we renew our pact, and this time make it a “wolfpack.” We each put one hand on top of the other, Eli called “Wolfpack on five” and the deal was sealed. Never again.
The rain had abated, so we walked along the strip. Jimmy said, “It’s strangely heartening that the Canadians can be as tacky as the Americans.” All we saw were chains and amusements: Ripley’s Believe It or Not; Louis Tussaud’s Wax Museum; Criminals Museum, featuring both Hitler and Freddy Krueger in the front window; an indoor water park; Rain Forest Cafe (that’s another never again for us); t-shirt stores; ice cream and slushie stands; hot dogs; french fries with everything; a head shop; Cuban cigars; and a hip hop shop. Immediately we wanted to flee. Lydia remarked, “This is so not Brookline,” although Grace said, “This is fun.” Having not yet seen the falls — where the hell were they? — we trudged back to our room and watched an Ugly Betty rerun in French voice dubs.
The next day the town seemed a little more palatable in natural light, and we finally found what we had come for, the Falls. We easily got tickets for the 9:30am Maid of the Mist. Even from across the river the perpetual water show is magnetic. I thought about the rivers predating and outlasting me: It is, and has always been, this. My existence is of no concern to the water.
In a few minutes, we were cruising past the American falls, and the plummeting water cooled us with a wind that made our blue plastic ponchos crinkle. Near the Canadian falls, more robust than the American ones, there is so much mist that my glasses were hard to see out of. I wiped them and stared instead at the bubbled surface of the water.
Disembarking, the kids wanted most to talk about people who had made it over the falls either accidentally or in a barrel. After a late breakfast at Starbucks — a chain, but more tolerable than the nearby Hard Rock Cafe with the Michael Jackson stars embedded in its front walk — we headed out of town and spent the afternoon in Niagara-on-the-Lake, which is sort of like Edgartown or Sonoma, touristy but also quaint. We walked up and down Queen Street, ate sandwiches, waded our feet in the pool in the town square, and found both shade and ice cream.
Lake Ontario seemed as vast as a sea, but with a lakey shore, along which we walked and splashed. I picked stones on my own for a while, still smarting from a remark Jimmy had made to me back in the ice cream parlor. I thought about how words, which are the basis of the connections we have to each other, can also be like hands that push us away. Should we be as careful with language as we are with sharp or fragile objects? Perhaps I overthink these matters, I chided myself as I also indulged my hurt feelings. On the drive back to Niagara Falls, we stopped at a massive power generating station on the river. Human engineering achievements can be as impressive as geologic wonders.
Determined to spend no more time on the strip, we aimed for another Queen Street, this one in Niagara Falls and near City Hall, in a newly designated arts & culture district. While it is not as bustling as the promotional pictures suggest, there are what I would call real restaurants and stores here, ones that people who live in the city might actually patronize. We ate happily at Mide, a bistro connected to a yoga studio and, believe it or not, oxygen bar. The front window, really a garage door, was opened onto the street, and we enjoyed dusk as we ate things like hummus, vegetarian paté, tilapia, snow peas, and wild rice. There were no french fries on the menu — whew. Later, Eli and Lydia sat at the oxygen bar, inhaled, and felt nothing more than the strangeness of having plastic tubes in their noses.
It was our second and last night (ever?) in this strange city, and we drove to the falls along the river, seeing bed & breakfasts and neighborhoods where people actually live. We walked along the promenade, climbed stairs to a viewing deck, and saw the falls lit up first with pink lights and then with blue ones. Riveting. Weird.
Feeling as though we had exhausted the opportunities in the city but missed something essential about the Falls, the next morning we packed up early and quickly and drove again to Queen Street, which was on our way out. We walked around for a half-hour, waiting for Paris Crepes Bistro’s 11 o’clock opening. It’s a neat street, with galleries and at least two music shops. This cafe, too, opens to the street with a garage-door front and serves French press coffee. Nice latrines. And, oh, the crepes — sweet ones and savory ones — are the real thing.
Who do the Falls belong to? That was the question to myself as our van made its way along the western edge of the lake, passing signs for vineyard after vineyard, including Wayne Gretzky Estates, at which we did not stop. It seemed as though commercialism has created a kind of freak show around the Falls. There’s even a casino there. And while there are newer hotels and contemporary burger joints, the development there is not new, as I learned in another biography I read on vacation. In the 1860s, when John Muir was living in the Yosemite Valley, one impetus for the creation of a national park there was to avoid the privatization that had created the “Niagara Falls debacle,” known even then as “a gigantic institution for fleecing the public” (169). Indeed, we can have no close-up experience of the Falls without first forking over a few dollars to at least get in the parking lot, and more to get on the boat or hike down along the trail near where the water crashes. There is something sad and regrettable about our tendency to pave paradise. That’s the side of sentiment that I’m on. And yet, I asked myself, who am I to say that nature has to be a pure experience to be authentic? I did eat the crepes, after all.
Up next: Toronto, and the ride home. Stay tuned.